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Updated 06/26/2006

A Step Toward Justice: Honduran Military Leader Found Guilty of Human Rights Abuses

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In a historic ruling in March 2006, a federal judge in Miami ordered retired Col. Juan Evangelista López Grijalba, a former Honduran military intelligence chief, to pay $47 million to six plaintiffs who were tortured or whose family members were murdered by Honduran military forces in the early 1980s. After more than two decades during which the Honduran justice system has failed to effectively investigate or prosecute a case, the success of this U.S. civil suit is a step toward justice. 

The suit against López Grijalba was brought by Oscar and Gloria Reyes for torture they endured in 1982; by Zenaida and Ricardo Velásquez, sister and son of Manfredo Velásquez, for his disappearance, torture and extrajudicial killing in 1981; and by Martha Madisson and Karen Burgos, sisters of Hans Albert Madisson, for his disappearance and extrajudicial killing in 1982. The Reyeses and Zenaida Velásquez are now U.S. citizens and currently reside in the United States. 

López Grijalba was in charge of military intelligence units in Honduras in the early 1980s, when hundreds of suspected “subversives” were detained, tortured, and disappeared or murdered as part of a Cold War-inspired national security doctrine. As head of the National Investigations Directorate (DNI) from 1978 to 1982, López Grijalba commanded operations in Tegucigalpa and oversaw the Honduran Anti-Communist Liberation Army (ELACH). In 1982, he was appointed director of military intelligence for the Honduran Armed Forces, making him responsible for all security operations, including those of the DNI, ELACH and Military Intelligence Battalion 3-16. Most of the documented human rights crimes of that era are attributed to these three groups. 

Oscar and Gloria Reyes endured brutal torture at the hands of interrogators under López Grijalba’s command. They were abducted by military personnel from their home in Tegucigalpa in July 1982, interrogated about “guerillas” and “subversives,” and tortured repeatedly with beatings and electric shocks. After more than five months in captivity—first in a secret detention house, then at DNI headquarters, and finally in state prisons—the Reyeses were released on the condition of forced exile and a promise to remain silent about what they had endured. An eyewitness placed López Grijalba at the scene of their abduction, giving orders to his troops. At the time of their abduction, Oscar was a journalism professor and Gloria ran a mini-market from their home.  

Hans Albert Madisson López was abducted by military agents on the same night as Oscar and Gloria Reyes and in the same neighborhood. Madisson, who was staying at his sister’s house down the street from the Reyes, was a university student with no known political affiliations. Many believe he was taken by mistake. Several days later, DNI agents informed one of Madisson’s sisters that they had “gotten rid of” him along the Northern Highway. Some time later, a bag of human body parts was found, including a dental prosthesis that Madisson’s mother identified as his. Finally, in 1995, the body of Madisson was exhumed from a spot along the Northern Highway; his body was decapitated and showed signs of torture.  

Manfredo Velásquez, a teacher, graduate student and father, was last seen being pushed into a car by military agents in September 1982. His sister, Zenaida, stated that the day after Manfredo’s abduction she received a call from an anonymous source saying that Manredo was being held by the DNI. A witness testified that while he was being held at a detention house where he was tortured by DNI agents, he heard a man in an adjacent room identifying himself as Velásquez and calling for help in a pained voice. According to evidence presented in the trial, Velásquez was ultimately taken and murdered by ELACH, at the order of López Grijalba. Velásquez’s body has not been found.  

The Center for Justice and Accountability, a San Francisco-based human rights organization, filed the civil suit on behalf of the plaintiffs in July 2002 in the U.S. District Court in Miami, after it learned that López Grijalba was living in the United States and had been arrested for immigration violations. CJA lawyers, joined by pro bono lawyers in Florida, filed suit under the Alien Tort Claims Act and the Torture Victims Protection Act, which grant the right to sue for human rights abuses in U.S. federal court, regardless of where the crimes were committed.  

The civil trial was scheduled for Oct. 18, 2004, but an immigration judge ordered López Grijalba deported to Honduras before proceedings could begin. His connection to human rights abuses was cited in the deportation decision. Because López Grijalba was no longer in the country and did not send his legal counsel to court, a default judgment was issued against him on Feb. 16, 2006, making him liable for the claims against him.  

In a bench trial on damages on March 16, 2006, Judge Joan A. Lenard heard testimony from Oscar and Gloria Reyes. The couple gave detailed, and often emotional, testimonies about their abduction, interrogation, torture, clandestine detention and prison time, as well as the ransacking of their home and their exile in the United States. Asked why she brought this case, Gloria Reyes replied, “For justice... I want to bring my little grain of sand for those who could not speak.” 

Lawyers also presented affidavits from the remaining plaintiffs and depositions of witnesses, along with evidence including declassified U.S. government documents. The judge issued a final ruling on March 31, finding that evidence conclusively established López Grijalba’s responsibility for the abuses committed and that the plaintiffs were entitled to compensatory and punitive damages. 

“As a commander in the armed forces, López Grijalba possessed a duty to prevent abuses about which he knew or should have known. Instead, defendant López Grijalba participated in these abuses,” Judge Lenard said in a written ruling. 

The judge ordered López Grijalba to pay Zenaida Velásquez $2 million in compensatory damages and $3 million in punitive damages, and to pay Hector Ricardo Velásquez $3 million in compensatory damages and $3 million in punitive damages. She awarded Oscar and Gloria Reyes each $6 million in compensatory damages and $7 million in punitive damages. The two sisters of Hans Madisson were each awarded $2 million in compensatory damages and $3 million in punitive damages.  

CJA Litigation Director Matt Eisenbrandt praised the decision saying, “The court’s ruling provides a powerful condemnation of Col. López Grijalba’s barbaric behavior and complete disregard for the lives of Honduran civilians.”  

Eisenbrandt also noted that the ruling was “significant due to the importance of Honduras as a strategic ally of the United States in the 1980s, when it was the hub of U.S. policy in Central America. John Negroponte, the current U.S. Director of National Intelligence, served as ambassador to Honduras from 1981 to 1985 and oversaw a massive increase in U.S. military aid to the country. In 1983, the U.S. State Department human rights report famously stated, ‘There are no political prisoners in Honduras.’” 

Human rights groups in both the United States and Honduras applauded the ruling and called on Honduran authorities to bring criminal charges against López Grijalba. On May 4, CJA attorney Almudena Bernabéu met with Honduran Attorney General Leonidas Rosa Bautista to encourage him to pursue a criminal case and offered to turn over all the evidence CJA had amassed during the civil suit. 

After the Reyeses gave their testimony, Judge Lenard said, “I commend you for your great strength, both of you. It is important for the world to hear what you have said. Free people must know this truth to prevent it from happening to anyone else or anywhere else. I hope in my heart that you have received some comfort from the knowledge that your testaments today are now recorded in this public record.”  

For the victims, telling their stories is an integral step in the healing process. And Judge Lenard’s ruling is a strong condemnation of and warning to human rights abusers who live in impunity, in Honduras and elsewhere. But, as CJA’s Eisenbrandt pointed out, justice will truly be served “when López Grijalba and other military leaders are behind bars.”   

For more information 

"Bench Trial on Damages Before the Honorable Joan A. Lenard, United States District Judge." (Full trial transcript.) March 16, 2006. 

“Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law.” U.S. District Court, Southern District of Florida; Case No. 02-22046-CIV-LENARD/KLEIN. March 31, 2006. 

“Honduras: López Grijalba.” Center for Justice and Accountability. 

“Honduran couple details how they were tortured.” Alfonso Chardy. The Miami Herald; March 17, 2006. 

“The Family Secret.” Pamela Constable. The Washington Post; May 26, 1996. 

“How a journalist was silenced.” Gary Cohn and Ginger Thompson. The Baltimore Sun; June 13, 1995. 

“The Quest for Justice: Efforts to Prosecute Honduran Human Rights Abusers.” May I Speak Freely. 

“The Facts Speak for Themselves: The Preliminary Report of the National Commissioner for the Protection of Human Rights in Honduras.” Leo Valladares Lanza. July 1994.